Humorist Dave Barry comes to the Rochester Fringe Fest Friday
05:00 AM, Sep 25, 2013
If you go
What: Dave Barry.
When: 8 p.m. Friday.
Where: Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre, 60 Gibbs St.
Tickets: Range from $20 to $65. They are available at rochesterfringe.com, Wegmans, (877) 368-2207, (585) 454-2100, the Spiegeltent box office at the corner of East Main and Gibbs streets from 5 to 9 p.m. Thursday and 5 p.m. until showtime Friday, and at the door.
I’m not making this up. But for two decades, Dave Barry was the most popular newspaper humor columnist in the country, winning a Pulitzer Prize for basically writing jokes and creating catch phrases like “I’m not making this up.”
There was a TV show based on his life, which impresses most Americans more than winning a Pulitzer Prize.
And he’s even had a sewage-lifting station in Grand Forks, N.D., named for him. Stuff like that you cannot make up.
He’s gone from humble reporter for the West Chester, Pa., Daily Local News, which sounds like a newspaper name you might make up, to the author of best-selling books. Novels such as Insane City, released earlier this month. And humor books, getting a 93-year jump on other historians with the 2007 publication of Dave Barry’s History of the Millennium (So Far).
Somewhere in all of this, there is a stand-up routine. In fact, it will be at Friday’s First Niagara Rochester Fringe Festival. Certain key aspects of this gig seem to have escaped Barry. “I wasn’t told there was going to be people in the theater,” he insists.
Apparently, there may be. So he’s now preparing for that eventuality. “I’ll talk about my career some, tell some random stories,” Barry says from his home in Miami. “There’s really no actual topic or point that I want to make.”
Yet he can make a few if he so chooses. For one, when Barry takes the stage, a mere nine days will have passed since “National Talk Like a Pirate Day.” Barry’s columns played a major role in popularizing the happening. Which is as real, at least, as “Hug a Vegan Day,” celebrated the same day as Barry’s show. And again, I’m not making that up.
And there is the matter of the sewage lifting station. Barry once wrote a column mocking Grand Forks and its neighbor, East Grand Forks, Minn., for calling themselves the “Grand Cities.” Perhaps Grand Forks has a sense of humor, or maybe East Grand Forks doesn’t have a sewage system, but in 2002 Grand Forks was the first community to name a sewage facility after a Pulitzer Prize-winning humorist (there may be one named for Cheech and Chong, but they’ve never won a Pulitzer). Barry attended the grand opening, an appropriate phrase for such a facility. “Sewage Lifting Station No. 16,” he says. “It’s a little bit of a tourist attraction. I regularly get email photos from people of them standing in front of it.”
(Barry does not have a ready explanation as to the actual function of a “sewage lifting station.” Most people prefer to see their sewage dropped out of sight, and not lifted.)
Barry has played in a few rock bands over the years. Most recently it was the Rock Bottom Remainders, made up of such literary lights as Amy Tan, Stephen King and Roy Blount Jr. Barry was lead singer and guitarist.
“I did sing ‘Gloria’ onstage with Bruce Springsteen singing backup to me,” he says. “I don’t believe he has any sewage lifting stations named for him.”
Barry left the Miami Herald in 2004, bringing an end to his regular humor column. “I don’t know how anybody writes newspaper humor columns anymore,” he says. “You have the late-night TV guys like Fallon, Kimmel, Craig Ferguson, Letterman, Leno, talking that evening about things that happened just that day. Plus you now have 900,000 people on Twitter. Every bone has been picked clean.”
Instead, Barry began feeding on a new carcass that no one had ever thought of before: writing novels that made fun of Florida.
OK, Carl Hiaasen was already writing novels that made fun of Florida. But there’s a difference. “Carl hates Florida and everything it stands for,” Barry says. “I find it entertaining.
“You really don’t need to have an imagination to write novels about Florida. You just need to read the newspaper. Things happen here I cannot imagine happening anywhere. News almost happens in the form of humor columns.”
He points to The Python Challenge.
“Other states have a squirrel problem,” Barry says. “Dade County is infested with pythons. The state invited people to pay a fee and come out and shoot them. There were a few cash-prize challenges. Most pythons, longest python. But they had to be killed humanely. God forbid if a python should feel pain.
“The pythons won the python challenge easily. The state estimates there are a couple of hundred thousand pythons in the state. The python hunters got about 60.”
Those are numbers. Florida, Barry admits, has a problem with concepts such as counting. “We should not be allowed to have any electoral college votes,” he says. “We should give them to Wyoming or someplace that is capable of handling it. We screwed it up in 2000, and we did it again last time. People in Dade County were in line to vote long after Mitt Romney conceded.”
That’s commentary edging toward politics, something Barry says he generally avoids, even though he’s run for president a few times. And lost.
If anything, Barry says he’s a Libertarian, but that may be because there’s no political party for Court Jester.
“My goal was always to entertain,” Barry says of his columns. “I would sometimes have a point, but it might be really hard to find it.”
OK, so how did this joker win a 1988 Pulitzer Prize for commentary? Barry believes he has some insight into how that happened.
“I served on the screening committee one year, which previous winners often do,” he says. “It was a cold and rainy day in New York City, and you’re sitting around all day, hour after hour, reading Pulitzer entries.” Barry recalled some of his own columns that had been a part of his Pulitzer entry. “I had written a column mocking the Pulitzer Prizes, where I tried to win one by addressing a whole lot of important issues, admitting my goal was to win a Pulitzer,” he says. “Plus, I promised to split the prize money with the judges. I had another column that was a vicious attack on New York City, which was in response to an attack on Miami. A New York Times piece called ‘Can Miami Save Itself?’ Which, in our newsroom, we considered about 10 years too late.”
Barry’s Theory of Why I Won: The Pulitzer screening committee tired, cold and wet cynically jumped at the chance to honor something that mocked their task.
So Barry can talk about that. Or Dave’s World, the CBS sitcom that ran from 1993 to 1997, with Harry Anderson playing Dave Barry, the newspaper humor columnist. Barry himself was reduced to a cameo appearance in his own life, as a man buying an air conditioner.
“It was nice they paid me,” Barry says of Dave’s World. “But if I had to do it over again, I wouldn’t have used my name on it. It was supposedly based on my columns, but my columns don’t have a plot. So they had to write their own plots. There was this team of writers in L.A.; none had been a newspaper columnist. And in the show, my character never wrote. Harry Anderson would just walk into the editor’s office, slap a big envelope on the desk and announce ‘Here’s the column.’ It was all just many adventures and jokes and conversations, and I didn’t spend all day staring at a computer screen. Which would be the most boring show ever.”
That’s right. The story of Dave Barry’s life wasn’t good enough. They had to make it up.